Why are so many workers going on strike?

Why are so many workers going on strike?

Rail workers on the picket lineImage source, Getty
Image caption,

Rail workers from three trade unions hold a co-ordinated strike, 1 October

Tens of thousands of workers have downed tools this year to request pay deals that keep up with the rising cost of living.

It has left the public having to deal with train strikes, overflowing bins, gridlock in the courts and disruption to other services such as mail deliveries.

There could be further strikes through the winter and next year, as doctors, nurses and teachers are in dispute with employers over pay.

Why are the strikes happening?

Though most disputes involve a range of issues, the main one is pay.

Prices are rising at over 10% per year, the fastest rate for 40 years.

That means workers are seeing their living costs rising faster than their wages, leaving them worse off.

  • Why are prices rising so quickly?

Workers in many industries belong to trade unions, which are organisations that represent their interests to management and negotiate on their behalf about pay, jobs and conditions.

Where those unions have not been able to get a pay deal they feel is fair, and haven’t been able to agree a compromise, they vote on whether to take industrial action.

At the most extreme, this means going on strike where workers refuse to do their jobs to try to persuade their employers to give in.

Workers can also take less drastic measures to put pressure on their bosses, such as refusing overtime. Doctors and nurses won’t completely stop work as that would put lives at risk.

Industrial disputes have definitely been rising since the pandemic. In 2019, on average 19,500 days a month were lost to strike action. In July, the figure was 87,600, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,

Postal workers and strike action protesters outside the Mount Pleasant Royal Mail sorting office, 26 August

Who is striking?

The most high-profile strikes include:

  • The railways have been disrupted by a series of strikes since June. Members of three rail unions – the RMT, the TSSA, and ASLEF – are taking part in a series of one-day strikes which have brought parts of the rail network to a virtual standstill. The next strikes are planned for 5 November.
  • Workers at Royal Mail have held strikes since August, and have another 19 days of walk-outs planned between October and December. Around 115,000 members of the Communication Workers’ Union are taking part in the strikes.
  • Around 40,000 workers at telecoms companies BT and Openreach went on strike for the first time in over 30 years in July, seeking a better pay deal, with further strike action expected soon.
  • Some 4,000 staff at 23 further education colleges walked out over pay in October. Some colleges have made agreements with staff though the dispute is ongoing at others.
  • Dock workers at Felixstowe and Liverpool are also in dispute over pay.

Who is considering going on strike?

  • The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is balloting all of its members in the UK for the first time in its 106-year history. They are requesting a pay rise of 5% plus inflation. A ballot at the Royal College of Midwives starts on 11 November.
  • A ballot of 70,000 members of the Universities and College Union at 150 universities voted in favour of strike action in two separate disputes: one on pay, one on pensions.
  • Junior doctors in England, represented by the British Medical Association, are planning to ballot in January on industrial action over a pay deal which will give them 2% this year.
  • Some 350,000 health workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland belonging to Unison began a vote on industrial action on 27 October. A vote in Scotland was suspended following a new offer from employers.
  • Around 18,000 ambulance workers belonging to GMB and Unite are voting on strike action.
  • The NASUWT teachers’ union is balloting around 162,000 members over industrial action, while the NEU teachers union is expected to announce a ballot too.

Does the public support strike action?

A number of polls have asked whether the general public support strikes.

A poll at the end of October by Savanta ComRes found that 60% generally support workers taking industrial action, with 33% opposed.

Asked about strikes over pay and conditions, support varied widely between different industries, with nurses and teachers attracting the most.

Image source, Getty Images

In the summer, polls on the rail strike from Ipsos and Opinium found roughly equal numbers supporting and opposing it.

What do employers say?

Staff wages are a major cost for most businesses and some of the companies which are in dispute with their workers say they do not have enough money to give pay rises.

Royal Mail and the rail companies say they want to agree new working practices alongside the pay award, which has proved another point of dispute.

Doctors, nurses, and the striking lawyers are paid by the government. Their salary is set by a review process which published its findings in July, presenting millions of workers with below-inflation pay rises.

The new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has warned of a “profound economic crisis” with “difficult decisions to come” – which will make it hard to make a more generous pay offer to public sector workers.

The Bank of England worries that if workers win big pay rises, their employers will have to put prices up. That pushes up inflation, causing workers to request bigger pay rises, creating a “wage-price” spiral which could lead to a sustained period of inflation.

However, workers are in a strong position as unemployment is extremely low. There are more vacancies than people looking for work and many employers are short of workers.

The Trades Union Congress argues that on average workers earn less than they did in 2008 – the longest period without an increase for 200 years.

Image source, Getty
Image caption,

Nurses join a cost of living protest in June

What do workers earn?

Pay varies hugely between industries, job roles and how senior workers are.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics found that railway workers earn an average of £43,000. Train drivers earn the most – average £59,000 – while travel assistants earn £33,000.

Nurses in England earn from £27,000 to £55,000, with the average nurse earning around £32,000 according to the RCN.

Has anyone managed to get big pay rises?

A number of disputes have been resolved this year, with some workers being awarded pay rises of 10% or more.

  • Criminal barristers in England and Wales accepted a 15% pay rise in October, after a strike which began in June.
  • Refuse workers in Eastbourne, negotiated a deal worth over 11% in January after going on strike.
  • Train drivers in Scotland agreed a 5% pay deal in June.
  • 2000 bus drivers in North London won an 11% pay deal after threatening a strike.
  • 480 bus drivers in Kent won a pay deal worth nearly 14% after six days of strike action.
  • In July BA staff at Heathrow accepted a pay deal worth 13% after threatening to strike.
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,

Barristers won a 15% pay rise after going on strike this summer
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